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Brownsville revisited

National | Allegations of impropriety and wrongdoing surrounding the five-year Florida Pentecostal revival don't pan out-but its leaders have tidied up a bit, anyway

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

Pastor John Kilpatrick was feeling exhausted physically and emotionally on Father's Day Sunday. So, he asked the guest evangelist who was preaching at several evening meetings that week to take the Sunday morning service as well. What happened next on June 18, 1995, and afterward became known throughout the world as the "Brownsville Revival."

The 1995 Father's Day evangelist, Steve Hill, 45, a former Assemblies of God foreign missionary, stayed on, preaching several nights a week for four years at the Brownsville Assembly of God church on the west side of Pensacola, Fla., but only on Friday during the past year. Others took over the pulpit on other nights. Reports of "manifestations" (swooning, deep bowing, jerking, groaning) drew many. Total attendance over the past five years at the 2,200-seat sanctuary is said to be over 3 million.

Although the long lines outside are gone, crowds still gather at services four or five nights a week. Chartered buses from out of state still bring seekers and the curious, and delegations from abroad keep showing up. Months ago Mr. Hill announced that he would be leaving to concentrate on overseas ministry and "Awake America" rallies across this country. His final service was scheduled for this month, the Friday before Father's Day, the revival's fifth anniversary. Pastor Kilpatrick, musician and worship leader Lindell Cooley, and prolific author and educator Michael Brown remain.

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Brownsville leaders say the revival's focus has shifted from evangelism to discipleship and nurture, from spectacular "visitation" to low-key "habitation" by the Holy Spirit. They describe the Brownsville Revival School of Ministry, launched in 1997 with Mr. Brown as dean, as "the revival's chief legacy." It is a degree-granting, junior-college-level Bible school that last term had 15 faculty members and more than 1,100 students from 34 countries.

Brownsville leaders also say (and some Assemblies of God executives concur) that visitors to Brownsville have been active in churches back home, and that the School of Ministry's graduates-750 so far-are making an impact as missionaries, church staffers, and interns. Concern of some Pentecostals about "excesses," according to Brownsville associate pastor Carey Robertson, arises partly from jealousy and partly from embarrassment at old-fashioned Pentecostal manifestations during altar calls: "We believe this revival is God's model to point the Assemblies of God back to its roots," he said.

Brownsville's own services, including those where Mr. Hill preached, are similar to those in many Baptist and independent churches-until the altar call, when emotions run high. One sore point has been that sometimes people in obvious need of professional therapy are given the microphone to tell their stories. The revival's leaders say they have neither the time nor resources to screen and keep people away from the altar.

Christian radio's cult watcher Hank Hanegraaff, who comes from a Pentecostal background himself, has aired criticism of some of the manifestations and the use of "impartation" by ministry leaders (who presumably transmit the power of the Holy Spirit to respondents through laying on of hands). But at Mr. Brown's invitation, Mr. Hanegraaff met with Brownsville leaders and lectured at the school, where he received a standing ovation. Mr. Hanegraaff then toned down his public objections.

The Pensacola News Journal in November 1997 ran a series of front-page articles quoting complaints of some dissidents who had left the church. The newspaper suggested the revival had been carefully staged, criticized the handling of money, and challenged Mr. Hill's ghost-written 56-page autobiography, Stone Cold Heart, which tells how he emerged from the drug culture. Reporters also raised questions about failures to pay state taxes on sales of books, tapes, and music. (State authorities were not clear on the law either, it turned out.)

Pastor Kilpatrick told WORLD that no one could "program" what happened on Father's Day 1995 and thereafter. He and others pointed out that each of the four revival leaders had a non-profit ministry to receive and administer income: royalties from sales of books and other products, special offerings from speaking engagements, and the like. Their respective boards paid them salaries and supported other ministries from the funds. Each ministry had its own display tables, cash registers, and workers in the church lobby to serve revival-goers before and after services. Millions of dollars came pouring in. Clerks and auditors had trouble keeping up.

The newspaper could prove no wrongdoing in finances, neither on the part of the church (which handled the public offerings) nor the individual ministries. Nor did WORLD find any proof in a study that spanned two years. But the newspaper attack was a wakeup call. The ministries upgraded their financial management, moved the sales operations out of the church to a trailer "store" on the parking lot (revenues plummeted by two-thirds), commissioned public audits, and settled tax issues with the state. Two of the four ministries, those of Mr. Hill and Pastor Kilpatrick, joined the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and are now members in good standing.

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